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‘Behavior That’s Admired’
Beowulf: a New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney
© 2014 James LaFond
Norton, NY, 213 pages, bilingual
Before taking on the rereading and review of this very important book I reread the Iliad, The Old Testament up to Ezekiel, the Koran, the Epic of Gilgamesh Beyond The Garden Of Ishtar, and The Boat of a Million Years ‘To Sail Beyond The World’ by Paul Anderson, a sci-fi writer who was one of the better Norse scholars of his time. This has resulted in a course of inquiry into this poem that is unconventional, so you will want to check my impressions against those of the people who read and analyze this stuff for a living.
’Beyond the Whale-Road’
Beowulf is on its surface a tale of the Shieldings of Heorot [Christianized Danes living in a state of manly reduction] and the Weather-Geats [heroic outlanders, possibly symbolizing the virtuous Danes of old]. The introduction is hierarchal in the creeping sycophantic tradition of epic poetry. But, just as the Iliad had Achilles embedded as the anti-hierarch war-protestor as discussed in Caroline Alexander's The War That Killed Achilles Sorrow-of-the-People Beowulf strikes its dissonant notes more subtly and without a ragingly defiant character. The author makes mention of himself, placing his person in the epic if only as an observer. This man is not known to us as Homer is, but was known to those who listened to this tale—known well.
Where Homer states outwardly that the men of today are weaklings compared to the men of old, the anonymous though singular singer of Beowulf is far more subtle, letting the fate and deeds of those who appear in the epic make the point. As a novelist I would call this oblique exposition in trying to explain the prose version of the method. Beowulf the character is an anachronistic figure in his time, clothed in the weapons of the age, but of an older tradition at heart.
My thought is that Beowulf the poem was commissioned by a Danish chief or king as a pro-Christian allegory, but that the bard he assigned this propagandistic task too was too slick by half and hence gifted the ages with a contradictory layered allegory.
This is my third reading of Beowulf, the first done in ignorance and the second as primary sourcing for my study of ritual combat for The Broken Dance project. The bilingual edition of a primary source is very important for the researcher as it enables him to check the translation, which was useful in this case as Latinized biblical loan-words can be identified in the original Old English text.
The thing to keep in mind when beginning your reading of Beowulf is the concept of the wale-road [coastal sea-lanes] and beyond. This evokes the image of a chieftain sitting for the reading of this tale in a fire-lit hall that, in terms of the Christianizing mission he chose to embody, placed him as a candle at the very edge of the heathen darkness of the unknown, an unknown that was closely related to his own imperfectly known heritage.
‘The Killer of Souls’
The first acts of Beowulf center around Grendal, who is clearly a displaced pagan god. The gross message of the epic is that Grendal and other monsters are the creeping degenerate children of Cain who fled north into Europe and fathered a bestial race after slaying his brother Abel and betraying the Judaic patriarchy.
This sentiment indicates a militant crusading strain of Christianity in the region and age of this poem’s composition, as opposed to the normal assimilative and even syncretic methods by which Catholicism had spread over the old Roman Empire and would spread in Latin America, with local gods demoted and retained as aspects of God, or as angels or saints, most notably in the form of the primal Earth Mother retained as the Virgin Mary. Something brutally edgy—perhaps a war-tech infusion—accompanied the adoption of Christianity by the ruling classes in Nordic Europe.
The aspect of moral striving over and beyond the weapons of war becomes clear when Beowulf declares that he will wrestle Grendal, evoking Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel of God.
‘On His War-Loom’
The poet uses at least 20 names for God, leading this reader to suspect him of excessive flattery of his patron’s God as well as the insertion of various syncretic notions.
Syncretism is a Hellenic term that basically means, Yahweh is Zeus is Jupiter is Odin is Hiawatha so we can all just get along. The fact that this Norse version of the biblical Hebrew God has 20 faces and weaves strife on a ‘warloom’ [which should have been the role of a female war-fever goddess] indicates the difficulty in replacing a pantheon of gods with one God and hence generating an army of devils and demons.
Judaism in its biblical form was a metaphysical ideology for justifying the slaughter of enemy peoples to acquire resources. It was the product of a harsh environment that required nomadism of much of the population and discouraged humanizing rival human populations, and is best understood by the modern ideological mind as a metaphysical form of fascism.
Judaism was a good ideology in its context but failed on contact with Rome. Christianity was the result of infusing lineal Judaic metaphysics with cyclic Egyptian metaphysics, thereby producing a ‘designer thought virus’ crafted to infect, propagate in, and reduce complex polities such as Rome that were immune to simple tribal ideologies. Christianity co-opted the Greco-Roman syncretic impulse [which has since given us Aztec gods morphed into lady saints] to spread among the populace, even as the Judaic war god principal, which remained unsullied by making his son the compassionate divine aspect, appealed to the ruling military class.
However, as we see in Beowulf and in the 250 year religious war fought by the Norse to preserve their culture in the face of ‘the hanged beggar god’, things got ugly when Nordic war chiefs seduced by their wife’s belief in the Latinized One God went missionary with their sword.
‘Hate-Honed Swords’
The blade, heirloom weapon though it may be, always fails Beowulf, his every struggle devolving to wrestling. The importance of wrestling is an allegory for soul searching, the long term advantage of moral righteousness, and for looking beyond the material world and one’s own tradition.
It is interesting that Beowulf’s defensive technology, his coat of mail, which is the entire graphic of the cover of this translation, is more responsible for his victories and the extinguishing of ‘Cains’ clan’ of displaced pagan gods turned devil than his sword or his wrestling ability. In essence Beowulf’s struggles are enabled by his superior armament. It is doubly interesting to this reader that this exact sentiment has and does keep alive the hopes of the nominally Christian Secular West in its current struggle with Militant Islam.
‘Monstrous Hell-Bride Brooding on Her Wrongs’
This reader cannot shake the sense that the poet placed such emphasis on the terrible demon-mother of Grendal as his ultimate foe as an allegory for the moral rot of civilization symbolic of her vile ‘fen-lair.’ She is ‘the Killer of Souls’ and seeks to seduce him. The poet, only mentioning himself once, has here stepped back into the shadows of the story of heroes and monsters to warn his king that perhaps the promises of security that have swayed his wife and hence he to adopt Christian civilization will ultimately devour the souls of he and his kind.
I don’t see any support for this contention coming from academic circles. However, as a fantasy and sci-fi writer I can’t see the poet not inserting this anymore than I can see Homer not inserting Achilles, as the man who the king wished he was, the man killed in service to that king's womanly yearnings.
The final trial of Beowulf, in which he fights the dragon and dies making the world safe for the queen’s nests that are Christian civilization, is obviously an allegory of Man’s God-sanctioned war on nature in a sub-arctic context. The aspect of Christianity that appeals to the king is his right to conquer and subjugate all down to the very worms of the earth and the blades of grass they squirm beneath.
While the cyclic metaphysics originating with Egyptian rebirth obsessions and the lineal promise of forever secure eternal plenty wins over the queen, the king ultimately gets on board because of the Judaic war-god aspect. Although coming from the same Abrahamic root Judaism and Christianity have proven to be much better ideologies for supporting ethnic cleansing than Islam, so there is no surprise that the king chooses war against the demons of past beliefs and the environment those beliefs sprang from.
Hence, his struggle against The Dragon is what kills Beowulf, despite his coat of mail, for he is a tragically anachronistic soul.
‘Fate Swept Us Away’
Beowulf begins with a pagan Norse funeral mourning the passing of a king. In the end Beowulf likewise passes beyond and in so doing raises doubts about Christianity. His survivors evoke the old gods, and perform the old heathen rites just like they did for the king that preceded him.
In the end the poet that lauded the One Christian God and exalted in the slaughter of the fallen gods who remained skulking in the dark, mourns most of all the passing of the ‘behavior that’s admired’ exemplified by Beowulf, which made such deeds possible. At the close of this epic tract no doubt commissioned by a new Christian chief or king, the poet sings, ‘Fate swept us away’, honoring the old ways of men even as they recede behind the mists of a passing age.
If this chief or king, whoever he was, could be resurrected in his hall and listen to this tale again, and be imparted with full knowledge of what has transpired in the ages since his passing, he would surely declare that the subversive poet who wrote and sung this overtly fawning God-song had turned out to be a prophet, and one suspects would asked to be returned to his grave.
Beowulf is the song of the passing of an age, of an age when men could not live as women and live other than as slaves.
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